Seasonal Affective Disorder

Colder winter days are fast approaching when most of us wish to hibernate and getting out of bed is getting more difficult as we might feel sleepy and cosy under the duvet.

However, for some people winter months become very challenging due to an apparent decline in their mood. The winter season can lead to developing SAD, which is a type of depression that occurs only during winter months.  In the UK, broadly speaking people can start experiencing SAD symptoms from September to November and they can last till March to May depending on the individual and the British weather of course!

Symptoms include the following: sleeping longer than usual and difficulty of getting up, feeling lethargic, experiencing the loss of pleasure or interest in everyday activities and feelings of guilt or despair. Furthermore, symptoms may include overeating, and for some, the weakened immune system can lead to many colds and infections making winter months even more challenging.

Although the exact cause of SAD isn’t fully understood, research shows that changes to the levels of two hormones play a part; namely melatonin and serotonin. The lack of sunlight results in overproduction of melatonin.  This is a hormone that is important for sleep and in winter months the body produces more melatonin compared to summer months thus we tend to sleep more.

In addition, the production of serotonin can be also affected.  This hormone is very important for our mood, appetite and sleep. The lack of sunlight may lead to reduction of serotonin levels and less serotonin in the brain is generally related to depressive moods.

So what can you do to prevent the likelihood of developing SAD?

Firstly, lifestyle adjustments may help, such as getting out as much as possible during the sun light. Exercising, maintaining a healthy diet despite increased cravings for carbohydrates and sugar rich foods and taking vitamin D may also have beneficial outcomes.

For those who experience clinical symptoms of SAD several therapies have been proven to help; light therapy, talking therapies and antidepressant medication.

The light therapy involves a special light lamp that simulates exposure to sunlight and can be used either on its own or in conjunction with other therapies. The light box contains very bright fluorescent tubes, usually 10 times more intense compared to our household lights.  They are available at different sizes and it is advised that for SAD sufferers at least 2500 lux is required to have the desired effect. They are readily available online from many different manufacturers.

Another option you may like to consider is taking St John’s wort; this herbal remedy available over the counter, can be effective for mild to moderate depressive symptoms as an alternative to antidepressant medication.

Lastly, going on holiday to sunny countries during winter months is the most expensive option but worthwhile if finances allow.

If you believe that you might have SAD please talk to your GP who can prescribe antidepressants or refer you to therapy.  Remember that SAD is more than winter blues that we all experience and can have detrimental effect on your quality of life for several months each year, thus it is certainly worthwhile getting adequate help and support.